Remote work lessons from 7 years of professional experience as an inbound marketer and content strategist working from around the world.
Here is what the past few months looked like for me. Previously, I was also fortunate enough to work virtually from New Zealand, Indonesia, and Korea.
- June: Hong Kong, SAR of China
- July: Sydney, Australia
- August: Tokyo, Japan
- September: Bay Area and Seattle, USA
- October: Vancouver, Canada
I’ve worked with SaaS businesses, B2B tech companies, non-profits, marketing agencies, consultants, e-commerce platforms, and wineries from a dozen countries, with a passport that looks more like a collage to back it up. My talented clients have come from Australia, England, the Philippines, Estonia, and the USA (and have all taught me valuable lessons in marketing along the way). This was only possible with remote work.
Mastering Remote Work
Remote work: Work that can be done from outside the office with the use of technology like project management tools, email, phone calls, and other Internet-based tools.
This guide will go through how to get started with remote work, tools and techniques to stay productive while traveling, how to navigate visas, where to find similar communities, and more. I hope my lessons help you get started and/or optimize for remote work as well.
- Skills and Roles
- How to Explain What You Do to Your Mom
- Bonus: Taking Advantage of Travel (The Road to Digital Nomadism)
- Where to Start
Skills and Roles
The most common remote roles I’ve come across are designer, developer, and writer. There are various sub-sets, such as an SEO writer or copy editor, but generally if you want to get into remote work you should look at something to do with content, design, or programming (building things).
Common online roles
Here are a few popular remote roles.
- Project manager
- Virtual assistant
- SEO writer
- Technical writer
- Graphic designer
- UX designer
- Web designer or illustrator
- Software engineer
- App developer
- Customer advocate
- WordPress specialist
- Online tutor
Experience trumps education
In remote work, it’s all about what you can demonstrate. This way to work is fairly new (recently enabled by awesome advances in technology and communication), so there aren’t many formal university courses designed for successful virtual work. That means you need to focus on a portfolio and track record of achievements and what you were able to do, whether it’s the success rate of a marketing campaign or an app you built at a coding bootcamp.
That being said, here’s a note on important soft skills and technical requirements.
These are the soft skills that will go a long way when you work remotely.
- Problem solving
*I wanted to highlight communication because it’s so crucial. The key to successful remote work is good communication. It plays into productivity, skills, and more. You absolutely must be a clear, timely communicator to be a good remote worker.
Tip: Ask your clients how they prefer to communicate. This could be via project management app, Slack, Skype, or email (not recommended). Adjust your methods to suit their preferences and work toward a responsive working relationship.
I can’t tell you the exact technical skills you’ll need to excel at remote work, since it will depend on the specialization you want. For a general idea, I recommend looking at the job posting of your ideal position, and then noting their requirements or qualifications. Check out the remote job boards in this post on finding freelancers you’ll love as a starting point.
Tip: Aim to become a T-shaped professional. This means you have a broad understanding of many skills around your role, and in-depth knowledge of certain skills.
In marketing, that might look like base knowledge of copywriting, UX, branding, A/B testing and analytics, with in-depth knowledge of SEO and content marketing.
Ah, my favorite part of remote work (yes, even more than the freedom to travel). Remote work can help you unlock your most productive schedule and methods of working.
Some professionals revel in the flexibility, others acknowledge the option but choose to stick to a routine. Discover what works for you by testing different methods and using tools to supercharge your efforts.
Here are some of the tools I use on a daily basis.
- Trello: for project management.
- WordPress: for my clients and my websites.
- Google Drive: for cloud-based editable documents and spreadsheets.
- Slack: for IM-style communications and the occasional online meeting.
For a full list of tools and how I use them, check out my remote work tools checklist.
Do you work better in the evening? Would you rather split your workday so you work in the mornings and late at night? Do you track your time to monitor where you spend it? Do you put together a checklist of what you need to do the next day every evening? Do you pick out your outfit for the next day?
Whether you want to test out the Pomodoro technique or A/B test different caffeinated beverages in the morning, experiment with your best workday and what helps you get the most done [well].
Here’s a good summary of 7 different productivity methods and how they worked out for the members of the Blinkist team.
Your workspace is your best friend. It’s the setup that enables what you do remotely.
Some remote workers can theoretically work from their phones and tablets, but if you plan to work virtually long-term, I recommend setting up a home office. It provides separation between work and personal life, because it indicates whenever you sit there it’s time to get to business.
- Keep your screen at eye-level
- Your wrists should be flat
- Support your back
- Invest in a good chair and/or a standing desk
When you work remotely, even your friendly neighborhood pigeons start to feel like good company.
If you live alone and work remotely, it could be days before you interact with another person. If you like it that way, great. If you like socializing on a regular basis, it might not be so great.
To stave off crippling loneliness, you may want to join a few communities. NoDesk has an excellent curated list of online communities for location independent individuals.
Check out coworking spaces in your area for local communities of remote workers, freelancers, and entrepreneurs.
Join local industry events. You’ll get to meet professionals in the same or similar fields, and hopefully learn something while you’re at it. Karl Sakas put together a nice list of marketing events to keep an eye on.
How to Explain What You Do to Your Mom
“My son/daughter works on the Internet.” -Every remote workers’ mom ever
It can be hard explaining what you do to your parents, who only ever began interacting with the Internet and modern technology in the middle of their working career. I’ll try my best to provide a script, so they don’t ask you what you do everytime you go home for a visit. Without further ado…
In the Internet era, brands, reputations, and money is made online. My work ties into building the businesses that make life more convenient or efficient for the _____ industry.
Project manager: I need to ensure ideas meet execution on time and on budget. I use project management software to communicate with my team virtually and make sure everything gets done and delivered to our clients on a specific (and lucrative) timeline.
Designer: I create images and experiences that help our customers interact more intelligently with our brand. My graphics eliminate confusion about our message and clarify the next steps we want the customer to take.
Writer: I create and/or manage the content that convinces people to do what we want them to. My work helps to educate current customers, attract potential customers, and seal the deal online.
Developer: I build online tools and software that does exactly what my company and our customers need it to do, accurately and without fail, every time.
Virtual assisstant: I handle scheduling and communications for my team. I make their lives easier by keeping everything organized and doing the things that would otherwise slip through the cracks.
Bonus: Taking Advantage of Travel (The Road to Digital Nomadism)
Note: Not all remote workers are digital nomads.
There is a subset of remote workers who also choose to live across the world, seeing a new country every month or so.
I have a home base, and cannot fit all my stuff into fewer than 5 suitcases without seriously downsizing, so I don’t consider myself a digital nomad.
However, one of the great perks of remote work is the ability to travel. If this is something you want to do, here are a few tips to plan your travels while staying productive.
Finding cheap flights
Google Flights, Expedia, and TripAdvisor will show you some of the cheaper flight options you have. My advice is to find the best fare and then book directly with the airline, because it makes it easier to talk with them if you need to troubleshoot or contact the airline for something.
If you’re just planning on a short-term trip, you can look for reasonably-priced hotels. Expedia and TripAdvisor can help you find hotels as well as flights (same advice applies; unless you have an account with these services, it’s best to book directly on the hotel sites).
If you want to stay longer but don’t want to bother with a short-term lease, check Airbnb for local places. Pay special attention to whether other travelers recommended having a car. Many residential areas on Airbnb aren’t ideal if you want to be able to walk to a coffee shop to work.
Look for places with WiFi and a backup place to work from nearby (coffee shop or coworking space). Check for WiFi at public places around your area by looking at websites, online profiles, and reviews.
Tip: Need to find something last minute? Hotel Tonight might be a good app for you.
Try a remote work retreat
There are a number of businesses that will curate your experience, whether it’s by having communities around the world or taking remote workers on a long-term trip as a group.
Not all passports are created equal. Unless you are one of the lucky few with a German passport (the strongest in the world), you will most likely need a visa to travel the world.
Visas are your “permission” from the local government to visit their country. For some countries, you will have to apply for this permission online or at their local embassy. They ask for documents that identify you, confirm your intent to return to your home country, and prove you can support yourself financially during your stay without working illegally. Show ties to your home country. For example, if you own a home in your country, bring the land title in your name.
Tip: If you need an onward ticket to visit a country (as proof you plan to leave), but haven’t decided where to go next, you can rent an onward ticket at FlyOnward.
Check out my Teleport article for a few more visa tips for remote workers.
Where to Start
Fix your budget
Know how much you make now, how much you spend, and a breakdown of your expenses.
For example, if you need $2,000 for rent and utilities, $1,000 for groceries, $300 for your car insurance, maintenance, and gas, and want to put $200 into savings every month… You’ll need to make a grand total of $3,500 every month to cover your base expenses and savings contribution. That doesn’t cover unforeseen expenses, shopping, or extracurricular activities like seeing a movie or going to a play.
These numbers will show you where you can consider living or visiting, how much you need to make to support yourself, and will guide your salary (or hourly rate) negotiations.
Tip: Aim to have at least 6 months of your living expenses in savings at all times. For the $3,500 figure above, that would mean $21,000 in the bank to be safe. Working remotely isn’t always the most secure career choice, but the payoff is excellent so long as you stay prepared for the unexpected.
Read, Study, Learn
Sign up for email newsletters, do your research online, and learn the skills you need to do well at a remote position. Here’s a list of places to start, taken from my article on how to travel the world without sacrificing your career.
- Copywriting – Copyblogger’s Copywriting 101
- Programming – Code Academy
- Graphic design – Canva Design School Blog
- Customer support – HelpScout’s Complete Guide to Customer Support Training
- Remote work in general – Hubstaff University
Create a portfolio
A website is a quick, convenient, and professional way to showcase your work and share your portfolio with potential clients or employers. If you’re a writer, you can maintain a blog. If you’re a graphic designer, you can show samples of your work. If you’re a programmer, you can showcase a successfully built website as a project in itself.
If that isn’t incentive enough, freelancers with websites make almost $28,000 more annually than those without one.
Different content management systems suit different needs. A programmer should code the site themselves, and a graphic designer may favor the features of a Squarespace website. My personal recommendation is WordPress.com to get started with a free site, and eventually WordPress.org for a professional writer or marketer portfolio.
Apply for jobs
I cover some remote job boards for writers specifically in Tips on Hiring Writers You’ll Love, but here’s a list of general remote work listings.
- Authentic Jobs
- HackerNews whoishiring
- Hubstaff Talent
- Remote OK
- Stack Overflow
- The Muse
- We Work Remotely
- Working Nomads
More remote job hunting advice
- 9 Tips for Landing a Remote Job
- How to Find and Get Hired For a Remote Job
- Applying for a Remote Job? Include This in Your Cover Letter
Tip: If you need a little more experience, do some volunteer work to help build out your portfolio.
Work, learn, and refine your interests and ideal roles. Improve the skills you need to do your job well, and continue to develop your toolkit and credentials to stay on top any changes in your industry.